Closing yield gaps in China by empowering smallholder farmers

  • Nature volume 537, pages 671674 (29 September 2016)
  • doi:10.1038/nature19368
  • Download Citation


Sustainably feeding the world’s growing population is a challenge1,2,3, and closing yield gaps (that is, differences between farmers’ yields and what are attainable for a given region)4,5,6 is a vital strategy to address this challenge3,4,7. The magnitude of yield gaps is particularly large in developing countries where smallholder farming dominates the agricultural landscape4,7. Many factors and constraints interact to limit yields3,4,5,6,8,9,10, and progress in problem-solving to bring about changes at the ground level is rare. Here we present an innovative approach for enabling smallholders to achieve yield and economic gains sustainably via the Science and Technology Backyard (STB) platform. STB involves agricultural scientists living in villages among farmers, advancing participatory innovation and technology transfer, and garnering public and private support. We identified multifaceted yield-limiting factors involving agronomic, infrastructural, and socioeconomic conditions. When these limitations and farmers’ concerns were addressed, the farmers adopted recommended management practices, thereby improving production outcomes. In one region in China, the five-year average yield increased from 67.9% of the attainable level to 97.0% among 71 leading farmers, and from 62.8% to 79.6% countywide (93,074 households); this was accompanied by resource and economic benefits.

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We thank P. M. Vitousek, P. A. Matson, P. Christian, T. H. Misselbrook, G. P. Robertson, D. R. Chadwick, I. Ortiz-Monasterio, X.J. Liu and J. D. Toth for their comments/editing assistance. We thank Q. F. Meng, D. J. Lu, P. Yan, X. Q. Jiao and M. L. Guo for joint field experiment and data analysis. Many individuals were involved in the STB Network in Quzhou and elsewhere in China. This work was sponsored by the China 973 Program (Grant 2015CB150405), the Innovative Group Grant of the Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant 31421092), the Special Fund for Agro Scientific Research in the Public Interest (Grant 201203079), and the Program for New Century Excellent Talents in University (Grant 2016QC125).

Author information

Author notes

    • Weifeng Zhang
    •  & Guoxin Cao

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. College of Resources & Environmental Sciences, Key Laboratory of Plant-Soil Interactions, Ministry of Education, China Agricultural University, Beijing 100193, China.

    • Weifeng Zhang
    • , Guoxin Cao
    • , Xiaolin Li
    • , Hongyan Zhang
    • , Chong Wang
    • , Xinping Chen
    • , Zhenling Cui
    • , Jianbo Shen
    • , Rongfeng Jiang
    • , Guohua Mi
    • , Yuxin Miao
    •  & Fusuo Zhang
  2. Institute of Resources & Environmental Sciences, Hebei Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences, Shijiazhuang 050051, China.

    • Quanqing Liu
  3. Center for Animal Health and Productivity, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania 19348, USA.

    • Zhengxia Dou


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F.Z., X.L. and W.Z. designed the research. G.C., H.Z., C.W., Q.L., X.C., Z.C., W.Z., J.S., R.J., G.M. and Y.M. conducted field experiments and ran the STB network. G.C. and W.Z. collected and analysed the data. W.Z., G.C. F.Z. and Z.D. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Fusuo Zhang.

Reviewer Information

Nature thanks K. Giller, M. van Ittersum and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-5, a Supplementary Discussion and additional references.


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